RALEIGH — General Assembly lawmakers in the House unveiled their $29.7 billion budget proposal on March 29.
The budget contains several spending items related to mental health while adding $100 million to the disaster recovery relief fund, $1.4 billion to regional economic reserves, and $2 billion for water and sewer needs.
The House proposal includes pay increases for state employees, members of law enforcement, corrections officers and teachers of 4.25% in the first year of the budget and 3.25% in the second year. A recurring 1% cost of living (COLA) increase for all state employees is included in each year of the budget.
Around $70 million in additional funds for teacher supplement pay in low-wealth county districts is also included. With the inclusion of step increases and additional supplements rolled in, average teacher pay will increase nearly 11% over the biennium.
Per sources in the House, Gov. Roy Cooper has already agreed to the budget in advance as part of the agreement reached with Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) to pass Cooper’s long-sought-after goal of expanding Medicaid in the state.
That agreement has given rise to several policy items packed into the House’s proposal, such as expanding school choice and other education policy issues covering charter schools as well as the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which offers funds for students to attend the private school of their choice.
The budget expands the eligibility for K-8 students applying for Opportunity Scholarships by dropping the requirement of having been a previous public school student in order to apply. The income eligibility threshold currently at 200% of the amount needed for a student to qualify for a free and reduced-price lunch remains the same.
Charter schools that want to have remote academies or be completely remote learning-based also get a nod in the budget. There is also language making the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board the final stop for approving new charter schools or renewing existing schools instead of the state board of education. Various guidelines for the approval and renewal processes are included in that change, as well as an appeal process that would involve review by the state board of education.
A key provision for parents is “Academic Transparency,” which details how the public will be informed about courses and materials used in the classroom. In the same vein, another area will “Modernize Selection of Instructional Materials” by directing school boards to select and adopt academic materials for each area of the state’s standard course of study in K-12.
The process for Renewal Schools will be streamlined, and the budget lays out the plans and guidelines they must follow for items like submitting new plans. The changes will require State Board review.
The controversy over the proposed creation of a School of Civic Life and Leadership at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill may become moot as the bill includes nonrecurring funds to create the school. This school will focus on developing democratic competencies based on American history and political tradition.
The Medical Freedom Act (House Bill 98), which bars employment discrimination against individuals for refusing COVID-19 vaccination and prohibits the N.C. Commission for Public Health from requiring vaccination in order to attend K-12 public schools, is another policy item included in the budget.
The House budget includes language making the State Bureau of Investigations (SBI) an independent agency. A related provision of the budget would move the state crime lab under SBI due to its new independence.
The provision is timely with SBI Director Bob Schurmeier giving surprise testimony at House hearing on March 28 in which he called for the agency to be made independent. On two occasions during the hearing, he said Cooper’s chief of staff and general counsel asked him for his resignation and threatened him with investigations of racial discrimination.
Three sections of the budget delve into election and judicial areas covered by bills filed this session.
Legislation already filed in the House barring the State Board of Elections from being a member of Electronic Registration Information Center Inc. (ERIC) is mirrored in the budget.
Similarly, another section bars the state and county boards of elections from accepting outside or private money donations, such as “Zuck Bucks,” for any reason, including hiring temporary workers. In the previous legislative session, Senate Bill 725 sought the same goal. The bill was passed but was vetoed by the governor with no override attempt made.
With the inclusion of barring accepting outside donations, two North Carolina counties may have to back out of a related program. Both Forsyth and Brunswick county boards of election are participating in a Mark Zuckerberg-tied program as reported in January 2023. Brunswick County’s Board of Commissioners also recently passed a resolution on March 20 supporting the ban of private money in North Carolina elections.
Should the current rehearing case of Voter ID being reconsidered by the N.C. Supreme Court get a green light, the budget allots $3.5 million to fund implementation of the state’s Voter ID constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2018.
The mandatory retirement age for appellate judges is raised from 72 to 76 years of age in the budget language. The only exception is that of applying to be an emergency justice in a letter to the governor.
The budget also takes on abortion by preventing state funds from being used in “the performance of” or in administrative support of an abortion. Exemptions are made for certain cases where a mother’s life may be endangered or the pregnancy is the result of rape.
Additionally, the House proposal includes a prohibition on cap-and-trade requirements for CO2 emissions. No state agent, including the governor and Department of Environmental Quality, will be allowed to require a public energy utility that uses the power produced for itself to take part in carbon offsetting programs, per the budget proposal.
Over the last two years, Cooper has used rulemaking and executive orders to establish emissions reductions with a “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions goal.
Along with barring such emissions programs, the budget includes a prohibition on any requirement controlling emissions on new vehicles.